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SAG Talks May Resume Soon

February 8, 2009 06:01 | By

The Screen Actors Guild, after twisting itself into procedural knots, may soon be ready to resume talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that could finally lead to a new contract and eliminate any chance of an actors’ strike this year.

At least there is the appearance of that light at the end of the tunnel, following a near train-wreck between factions of the guild over whether to fire SAG executive director Doug Allen, who had been spearheading the guild’s floundering negotiating strategy.

A contract resolution for SAG would come as a relief to the entire movie and television production community, because the long-lingering dispute has been cited as a reason some projects aren’t being greenlighted.

A majority of SAG’s national board thought it had already accomplished Allen’s replacement in late January, when it reconstituted its negotiating team. And new talks with AMPTP were set for February 3. But they were canceled when SAG president Alan Rosenberg, in a last-ditch effort, went to court to thwart Allen’s ouster and to enjoin the new negotiating committee from reviving talks with the studios.

But Rosenberg was rebuffed twice by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant for both technical reasons and on the merits of his case. “You have not shown a probability of success,” the judge stated.

While the SAG president said he would appeal the ruling, the guild’s national board set a videoconference meeting for its Los Angeles and New York branches for Sunday, February 8. As this issue of Below the Line went to press, the board was expected to renew its previous decision based on a “written assent” with a formal vote that would pull the rug out from under the SAG president’s maneuvers and officially fire Allen.

There’s the chance that Rosenberg and his Membership First allies could find a new roadblock to thwart the national board which is now dominated by the moderate United for Strength coalition following an election in late 2008. A meeting last month became chaotic when Membership First members engaged in a 28-hour filibuster that opponents say prevented a vote from taking place.

More likely is that the leadership majority will also take over the negotiating strategy. The board had named David White, SAG’s former general counsel, to serve as interim executive director. Allen’s role as chief negotiator went to SAG senior advisor John McGuire who heads a new task force that has replaced the previous bargaining committee. The overhaul, many members hope, will jump-start a new round of negotiations with AMPTP that will finally result in a new primetime television/theatrical features contract. But talks aren’t expected to start before mid-February.

SAG’s previous contract expired more than seven months ago, on June 30. And the last time the guild and AMPTP talked was last November, following the intervention of a federal mediator, but they broke off after a couple of days.

Once the talks revive, the new SAG negotiating team must still hammer out the details of a new contract. A sticking point has been over SAG demands for residuals for its 120,000 members when their work appears in new-media platforms such as the internet and cell phones, and also for increased residuals on DVDs.

AMPTP has declined to offer SAG sweeter terms than it agreed to in reaching new contract settlements last year with the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. SAG negotiators will have to find a fallback position in order to reach a quick agreement. Making salary increases retroactive to mid-2008 when SAG’s contract expired could be key to reaching a deal. AMPTP on its website has been updating the amount of wages it claims SAG members have lost by not reaching an agreement. The tally recently topped $50 million.